City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

City Hangout – Old Delhi’s Best Guidebook

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

It’s a novel.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

First published in 1940 by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, Ahmed Ali’s novel Twilight in Delhi is the best guidebook to Old Delhi for the sophisticated traveller. While the area is fast shedding its history, one can glimpse the vanished world. Keep a copy in your back pocket. On reaching Turkman Gate, flip to page 14. “The air was filled with the shouts of the pigeon-fliers who were rending the atmosphere with their cries of ‘Aao, Koo, Haa!’” Look up. There are boys on rooftops, flying their pigeons, and crying, ‘Aao, Koo, Haa!’

At a kotha (brothel) on GB Road, next to Ajmeri Gate, open page 52. “From all around came the sounds of song, whining of sarangis, and the tinkling of bells, as the dancing girls entertained their customers.” The girls still dance.

At Jama Masjid, turn to page 77. “Vendors were selling small round kebabs fried in oil, and others still fried fish or meat cutlets, pulao or vegetable cutlets soaked in curds. Many sold sherbet…” And today, the vendors are selling kebabs and sherbets.

Set in 19th century Delhi, the novel traces a civilization’s decline. Through a purple-prose world of lovers, poets, pigeons, havelis, kothas, kuchas, mosques, dargahs and bazaars, it elegantly records the inner turmoil of a great capital, as its reigning Mughal culture starts losing its influence to the imperial rule of the British. Novelist E.M. Forster, who played a key role in the publication of the novel by the Hogarth Press, said: “It (Twilight in Delhi) is beautifully written and very moving… At the end one has a poignant feeling that poetry and daily life have got parted, and will never come together again.”

The novel’s final sentence is gloomy…
And night came striding fast, bringing silence in its train, and covered up the empires of the world in its blanket of darkness and gloom…

… and it starts with an equally gloomy verse by Bahadur Shah Zafar, Delhi’s last great Mughal.
Delhi was once a paradise,
Such peace had abided here;
But they have ravished its name and pride,
Remain now only ruins and care.

Today, Mr Ali lies buried in Karachi, Pakistan, and his Walled City is a maze of open drains and overhanging electric cables. But Delhi’s soul has miraculously survived in hidden corners which a tourist can discover if armed with this novel.

Reading Twilight… in Pahari Bhojla

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Churiwalan

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… behind Delite Cinema

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… near Turkman Gate

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Ballimaran

City Hangout – Old Delhi’s Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… near Kalan Masjid

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Chitli Qabar

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… near Patudi House

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Lal Kuan

City Hangout – Old Delhi’s Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Matia Mahal

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Bulbuli Khana

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… opposite Jama Masjid

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Churiwalan

City Hangout – Old Delhi’s Best Guidebook

Reading Twilight… in Al Jawahar restaurant

City Hangout - Old Delhi's Best Guidebook